Living in a land that is far away from our “home,” in the midst of another culture, busy with the day-to-day mundane work and home tasks, the Non Resident Indian (NRI) community in this “land of opportunities” has been yearning for a place of their own: just to come together, to discuss, share their thoughts and ideas and learn from one another, to have a platform which will pass on their culture and traditions to their children and grand children, and to nourish the feeling of belonging to a group.
These longings, shared by people, who have been endowed with a clear vision and commitment to generously share their ideas, skills, resources, and time, for the larger good of the community, gave birth to The Kerala Center. And nearly two decades after it was founded, The Kerala Center, now, come to be known as The Indian American Civic and Cultural Center, located in Elmont, Long Island, New York has come a long way, in living out these dreams and aspirations of a community that has made the United States their adopted homeland.
Dr. Thomas Abraham, a veteran of the global Indian community who had founded several Indian organization such as the FIA-New York, NFIA and GOPIO said that in the 1970s and 1980s, he made some attempts to start an Indian community Center in the New York area. However, there was not enough support among the newly arrived community to contribute large sums of money for a broad based community center while the community was contributing generously for religious institutions such as temples, churches, mosques and gurudwaras. In 1989, the Gujarati Samaj bought a building in Queens,NY and started their Center in 1990 and they were struggling to maintain it.
“When Stephen came to me with the idea of Kerala Center, I tried to discourage him, since I felt it would be difficult to maintain it with its monthly mortgages and other expenses,” said Dr. Abraham. It turned out to be true in the later part of 1990s.However, Dr. Abraham was fully committed to it and stayed on with the Center during the difficult times. The Kerala Center managed to tide over its financial problem when former banker and philanthropist Sreedhar Menon gave a challenge at one of Kerala Center’s annual banquet to raise $50,000 and he would match the same amount. The Kerala Center fulfilled it. In the following year. Dilip Varghese gave s similar challenge to raise funds for the Center. These, along with contributions from its founder patrons brought financial stability for the Center.The Center has now paid off the entire mortgage on the building, which has an auditorium and two classrooms, as well as several office and meeting rooms of its own. With debt burden off their minds, E M Stephen, a founding member and the Executive Director of the Center, credited several individuals who have contributed their time, energy, talents and resources to the establishment and growth of the Kerala Center. He said, “From a modest beginning 18 years ago, the Center has come a long way to play a vital role in the life of the NRI community in the United States.” Over the past two decades, it has become a focal point for Indian Americans, coordinating programs, activities, and services to the members and groups of the community in the New York region. The Center has outgrown its initial objectives for which it was founded, and has become a facility that serves the various needs of the larger Indian American community.
When asked, what led him to think of founding the Center, Stephen, 62, who had immigrated to U.S.A: in 1977, and devoted his entire life, especially since 1990, to voluntary work and the running of the Center, said, “As all of us are aware, the strength of our community living in the United States of America is highly remarkable. We have come from a poor country, which is also one of the world’s most densely populated regions. Today, our community here is well established in every field except in the mainstream political life of our adopted land. It is necessary for us to think about our future. In order to tackle the problems and needs of the community in a well-organized and planned manner, enabling us to participate in the political education of our community, we need Community Centers.
With this long out look in mind, the Indian American Kerala Cultural & Civic Center was established on April 28th 1990. It is proud to mention here that this is the first and the largest asset establishment for and by the community as a whole.”
Stephen, who has a long history of community service and voluntarism, said, “I became actively involved in Kerala Associations” He was instrumental in organizing Indian American Forum for political Education in USA of which he was the Chairman for New York State 1981 – 1985. He was the Chairman for the I ndia Day Parade for 1988 and 1989. “The underlying current in my involvement in all these community activities was basically with the motive of enlightening the community to fully participate in the mainstream American social, political and economic affairs. In 1990, I started, with the cooperation of leading Community members, a Center called Indian American Kerala Cultural and Civic Center,” the founder President and currently functioning as the Executive Director at the Center, said.
According to Stephen, there are about 60,000 Keralites in the New York metropolitan area. A main objective of the Center has been to address the emotional and cultural, and political education of all the community members. “This Center, the way we have planned the growth of this institution, has a vision and tremendous responsibility to take care of emotional and cultural needs of our community and meanwhile prepare them to face the responsibilities of becoming a full fledged American Citizen.” Stephen, who is fully engaged in this responsibility, said, “We are perhaps a minority group now. But I feel, as a community member, we have to feel and act as a part of the mainstream by fully participating in all the activities. That is our ultimate goal.”
Jose Chummar, former president of the Center, praised the efforts of Stephen in establishing the Center: “Stephen was instrumental to start Kerala Center and took the lead and dealt with many of the headaches of starting The Kerala Center. Dr. Thomas Abraham played a very pivotal role too in the establishment of Kerala Center.”
There were several non profit Malayalee organizations when Kerala Center was formed but none of them had its own place. “Kerala Center has been unique, because from the very beginning, we wanted to have our own building, a place of our own so that our people can come together. The old YMCA building on Long Island was bought as our central office. I took a membership for Kerala Center in 1991 and became the general secretary in 1992,” Jose recalled.
“The Kerala Center is playing a pivotal role in the daily lives of the Malayalee community in many ways. The Center is a place for everyone, from the children of our community to the senior citizens,” Jose, who has been serving as the president of Kerala Center for the past four years, said.
“We can now concentrate more on community activities and programs. We can utilize the center for the betterment of our community here, as well as in India,” Jose added. “The Center has also been providing platform for various leaders to have political awareness and campaign meetings with the Indian community. Not leaving out the important religious factor, the Center has become a forum for various religious activities and celebrations for the members of the center who represent Hindu, Muslim and different denominations of Christianity,” Jose said.
E M Stephen added, “After overcoming several initial challenges, the Kerala Center has attained a stable status and has carved out a name for itself among the NRI community in USA. There are Indian languages, Music and Dance classes for children, SAT coaching for youngsters held regularly, benefiting hundreds of children of Indian origin. Various seminars are being conducted regularly on topics ranging from politics to investments, in addition to many Civic and Cultural activities taking place on a regular basis at the Kerala Center.”Stephen went on to say, “The Center is providing information to the community about business groups in all fields. The Center is giving full support and assistance to the writers forum in the community. The benefits of such actions include mitigation of crimes, drug abuse, employment discrimination, bigotry, lack of discipline among the youth, destruction of the environment, child abuse and all other areas of social decay. With the help of State and Federal agencies, the Center will expand services to Senior Citizens of our Community. In this way, not only we are able to produce a disciplined society, but also projecting our=2 0ideals to the mainstream of this country politically culturally and economically, Thus we are being appreciated, accepted and recognized by the entire society.”
Every year, The Center honors nearly half a dozen Non Resident Keralites for their outstanding achievements and service to the society with the prestigious Kerala Center Annual Gala Award during a solemn ceremony. Dr. Thomas Abraham, an architect of the Kerala Center and currently a member, Boar d of Directors of the Kerala Center, said, “The Kerala Center annual gala awards are rated as the most prestigious award given from among the Malayalee community in North America. Recipients are chosen after a rigorous search and scrutiny. It has been our endeavor to honor the best, and those who are and can be role models to the rest of the community.”
Seminars are organized regularly on literary, social, and political them es at The Center. The seminars are not just a brain-storming and idea-sharing sessions, but, they challenge and invite participants to give back to the larger community. Dr. Abraham said, “While Kerala Center caters to the cultural needs of the Kerala community, its objective is broad to serve the civic and community interests of the larger Indian community. So we tailor many programs to involve the Indian American community.” Kerala Center was the venue to launch National Indian American Association for Senior Citizens in 1998 and South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) in the 2000. The Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) also uses Kerala Center for its committee meetings as well as organizing several public forums with the center. The Kerala Center in turns serves the whole Indian community”
Rajeshwar Prasad, who had served on the Board of Directors of the Kerala Center for nearly a decade, by virtue of the National Indo-American Association for Senior Citizens (NIAASC) being a member of the Kerala Center, said, “Though the Center’s membership, by its Constitution is limited to people from the state of Kerala, from a practical perspective, its activities cater to everyone. Many Indian community organizations of different languages and traditions utilize the Center as a focal point for their varied activities. The Center has welcomed such opportunities and in many instances, encourages them.”
Rajeshwar credits the prestige and success of the Center to the “enthusiastic and selfless contributions of its members.” He said, The Center’s collaborative efforts with a number of groups in Kerala State work for the benefit of most needy people in India. “Ongoing recognition by the Center of the social and political leadership at the Kerala State level as well as at the Federal level in USA is far more broader; it involves scores of organizations and institutions in the USA to be a part of such recognition,” he said.
The Center is exploring new ways to respond to the emerging needs of the community, Stephen said, and urged the members to contribute to, “continue with the ongoing projects of the Kerala Center; Support the Regional Cancer Research Center in Thiruvanathapuram; and change the mindset of the people back in Kerala.” Monetary support to young brides, whose families have no means to marry them off, was yet another noble project The Center runs every year, benefiting dozens of women back home in Kerala.
On the future of the Center, Thampi Thalappillil, president of the Kerala Center, said, “We have to do a lot of things for our second generation as well as for the first generation who are now getting old. We have already started some charity work aiming to help those back in India but we have plenty more to do.”